E-Mail by Machiavelli

My New Year kicked off with a sobering ritual: clearing out my email inbox. Unsure of what to save or delete, and a tad flustered over how much digital garbage had accumulated in the first place, I decided to channel a practical, unsentimental mentor.

Niccolò Machiavelli suddenly appeared. He accused me of being a naive email romanticist and noted the medium is laced with unmistakable tradeoffs: information pollution, Attention Deficit Disorder, consumer cynicism, and more marketing deception than TV’s first wave of clunky infomercials.

It’s not a lost cause. “Smart marketers in pursuit of the good,” Machiavelli explained, “must first awaken to email’s internal trail of sinister trickery, power plays, audit trails, ego gratification, and marketing hyperbole — especially in the work environment, where email is most intense.”

Fascinated (and a wee bit self-conscious), I eagerly listened as he proceeded to deconstruct the bloated mess before me. “There are two frameworks for thinking about the intersection of email and power: practices and personalities,” he said. “Both must be dissected and understood.”

We started with a few of the practices:

  • The bank shot. According to Machiavelli, it always pays to have others make or reinforce your point. The bank shot is when you send email to someone knowing she’ll forward it to your ultimate destination. “Use others to make your point, and save your chits for the bigger draws,” Machiavelli noted.

  • Topspinning. This involves fortifying or “spinning” email before it moves up the management chain. A manager might say, “Great idea, send me an email and I’ll give it some ’topspin.’” By the time it reaches the boss, the email may have several layers of “Great idea!” endorsements. Resumes rarely get anywhere without loads of topspin. Bloggers are master topspinners, always repurposing and repackaging content.
  • Game trapping. This is when someone sends email to an entire distribution list hoping to snare an unsuspecting target to respond (usually in error) to the entire group. There are parallels here to how a shrewd prince might periodically appeal to democratic principles to draw out critics or force adversaries to take sides prematurely. Evil, but necessary, according to Marchiavelli.
  • The forward pas (faux pas). Here, the emailer opens with a personal note, often to soften the business-like tone. The recipient, pressed for time, copies others in the reply, which includes the personal note. In the hands of strangers, this can be dangerously revealing. It’s not uncommon for a “forward pas” to land on a blog.
  • The holiday chip shot. This sneaky tactic is when an employee (usually the boss), ostensibly on holiday, suddenly resurfaces via email, almost as though he never really left the office. Often, the person will “chip in” on an existing email back and forth, camouflaging his vacation status.
  • Idea squatting. Here, email is used to claim credit for every idea, proposal, or recommendation under the sun. These time-stamped messages are later exploited to allow the sender to claim or hoard credit or, in some cases, block credit by other purported originators.
  • Batch mailing. This is the practice of dividing up a large-distribution email into smaller batches that have the potential to cross-fertilize one another. This often creates a viral effect, since everyone feels the duty to share content with others not on the distribution list.

Machiavelli then paused and shifted his attention to segmenting email personalities. Some are harmless, others are downright scary:

  • The blind-copy terrorist. This evil-doer is adept at copying everyone in the organization on an email, except for a target individual who is curiously (and obviously) blind-copied (BCC). This tactic is a sure ingredient for anxiety and insecurity. Indeed, the blind-copy terrorist loves to leave you in doubt about your status.

  • The reply-all rebel. Usually harmless and just plain stupid, the reply-all rebel is often grounded in a deep-seated guerrilla desire to stir up trouble. This individual consistently hits “reply all” on even the most insignificant of email messages. Many offices have policies to censure these folks. Even my own hand is red from hand-slapping reprimands.
  • The digital diarrhea-ist. This person never heard the expression, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Every email is a novella, a life story, or a government report on farm subsidies. Machiavelli explained these folks are excellent candidates for incarceration and that I in particular had better watch out.
  • The proud router. This is your quintessential social connector who loves to forward things on behalf of others. This person employs bank-shots, assists, match-making services, and topspinning up the wazoo. One’s job security and promotion are heavily dependent on winning favor from these individuals.
  • The pack rat. Routing has a dark side, Machiavelli warned. Every office has the digital equivalent of a pack rat. Not unlike a cat who leaves offerings of chewed-up mice on the doorstep, the pack rat loves to collect links, dumb jokes, bogus virus warnings, JibJab offerings (three weeks late) — and dump them all on your email doorstep.

Before departing, Machiavelli left me with the following: “E-mail is hardly a lost cause, but you must always stay close to how it is used, abused, and even manipulated.”

My advice to marketers: Heed his words. And let’s not forget to laugh at ourselves once and a while.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

Related reading